While watching events in the US and globally over the past 6-7 years, I realized that there’s not a lot of empathy out there although many claim to practice what Brene Brown and other psychologists teach. There seemed to be a societal disconnect between empathy, emotion, compassion, human rights, and justice. The pandemic demonstrated to me how disconnected we were. And this went beyond social media, politics, or other excuses people had at the time. Rather than coming together during a crisis, too many isolated themselves. Although we were quarantined in our homes, we had digital communication systems, phones, web conferences, and more. Yet many didn’t connect.
I know that I isolated myself from others because I couldn’t witness watching people’s mental health unravel in various ways. Over time, I witnessed my own decline partly due to the isolation but mostly after watching a large segment of the population refusing to understand why the protests were happening. Many refused to accept that accelerationists (or white supremacists who believe that their future lies in the system crashing down - more at ADL's site.) attended Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests to incite violence and in the end, lay blame on BLM for everything. Many more refused to accept that the police forces weren't prepared for these protests and often re-enacted exactly what the protests were fighting to stop. Many on the right would complain about the lack of order and refused to hear the complete story about what was happening regarding injustice. They didn’t seem interested in equal justice for all.
Another difficult moment for me was when the voter redistricting maps were being drawn and the voter rights issues were hotly debated. I noticed that many in the US acted like nothing was happening and it seemed like few gathered to fight the cause. That fight wasn't getting the momentum that it needed. It was at that moment that I realized how many didn’t see how they were part of a larger effort to fight for human rights and justice. No one person could do this alone, especially if it isn't that important to the larger population. It was hard to watch.
Around that time that I started researching compassion and self-compassion, and I discovered the Compassion Institute. I needed hope and optimism for a better future – not this apocalyptic nightmare of social apathy, hate, and resentment. I found Andrew Harvey who has been talking about spiritual activism for decades, and I started looking for a way to help change society, something different than political volunteering. I was too emotionally broken to phonebank or knock on doors. When I did phonebank, I was met with mostly hang-ups, arguments, or not interested responses. And no, phonebanking wasn't like that before and during the early stages of COVID. People wanted to talk and were inspired to make changes. As time went on after the presidential election, they stopped being interested. I wonder if many felt like the world was now fixed when it was obviously still very broken.
I know that society has a stigma towards compassion, where many believe that compassionate people are push overs or an easy target for manipulations. Too many don’t see the power in compassion because they don’t understand what it truly is or they take it for granted. I honestly didn’t know what compassion was until I took the Compassion Cultivation Training class from the Compassion Institute. I intellectually knew what it was, but compassion isn’t something intellectual that you contemplate; you need to feel the love that drives the compassionate action. And you don’t really get it until you experience it yourself through self-compassion, and giving and receiving compassion.
I now view compassion as an action and I believe that you can create a process filled with compassion in work environments, guiding people back to love even if they aren’t feeling empathy or sympathy. They will get there if there are constructed actions or opportunities to remind them of this. You can build curiosity into these processes to help people get their love muscles working again. Further, practicing the act of self-compassion is a path to social activism. You can’t love and be compassionate without wanting justice and equity for everyone.
I read a number of books about self-compassion but I can’t say that I truly experienced it until I started practicing regular guided meditations. Once I meditated, I accepted myself and started developing boundaries to be more accountable for myself than I already was. You realize during the process how the truth, no matter how damning or painful, does indeed set you free. And you realize how much meaning you attach to life events to make it sway in a direction that may validate your own views to help your survival (yes, Vicktor Frankl strikes again). Most of life isn’t good or bad, it just is, represented by my favorite story of the farmer and the horse.
There lived an old farmer who had worked in his fields for many, many years. One day, his horse bolted away. His neighbors dropped in to commiserate with him. “What awful luck,” they tut-tutted sympathetically, to which the farmer only replied, “We’ll see.”
The next morning, to everyone’s surprise, the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How amazing is that!” they exclaimed in excitement. The old man replied, “We’ll see.”
A day later, the farmer’s son tried to mount one of the wild horses. He was thrown on the ground and broke his leg.
Once more, the neighbors came by to express their sympathies for this stroke of bad luck. “We’ll see,” said the farmer politely.
The next day, the village had some visitors – military officers who had come with the purpose of drafting young men into the army. They passed over the farmer’s son, thanks to his broken leg.
The neighbors patted the farmer on his back – how lucky he was to not have his son join the army! “We’ll see,” was all that the farmer said!
If you accept what happens in the moment, get curious about what’s happening in your thoughts and feelings, and use those insights gathered from reflection with your values to make decisions, you are also being accountable. Not only does this support a compassionate life, it helps you build an honest, truthful, authentic life. You aren’t lying about your feelings because you know what they are and you are accepting of them. You accept what is happening at that moment – you see no reason to cover it up. And the insights from all of that guide your decisions – so you decide what to do in your life based on the truth as you see it at that moment rather than how you want to see it. This also allows you to create boundaries for yourself to be happy and be accountable for your accepted reality and for your actions. With this authenticity, accountability, and acceptance, you better trust yourself so others can trust you.
(You may be wondering how does this apply to work environments? We’ll get to that in a bit.)